The Danube Delta - What Future For Europe's Wetland Jewel?

Open any publication, booklet or website about Romania and it is almost impossible not to find any reference about the Danube Delta, the "lost Paradise on Earth". The aim of this article is to provide the readers with information about the Danube Delta's natural wealth and also the threats, which this eco-region is currently facing. Is common knowledge about the Danube Delta only made of marketing clichés? If the present is man-made what does the future of the Danube Delta look like? In the following pages we shall attempt, from the perspective of nature- conservation, to find some answers.  NATURE The Danube Delta is the second largest river delta in Europe, after the Volga. The Danube, one of the most international rivers in the world, flows over 2800 km from its source in Germany's Black Forest to its mouth in the Black Sea. The river creates one of the last intact river deltas in Europe on the border between Ukraine and Romania. The Danube Delta has an area of 799,000 ha (approximately 80% Romanian and 20% Ukrainian territory). In European terms, this is huge – approximately 12 times bigger than the size of the Cota Donana Reserve on the Guadalquivir Delta, Spain. 65,000 ha of the Danube Delta are strictly protected areas, including floodplains as well as 600 lakes, with an area larger than one hectare. This means that there are only certain types of activities that can be carried out in these areas or access is even restricted, without a special permit issued by the competent authorities. The Danube Delta is one of the largest wetlands of the world – a unique habitat of canals, reed beds, lakes, and ponds. It also hosts many species of flora and fauna, many of them threatened with extinction (such as various types of sturgeons or the white pelican). Over 3448 species of fauna have been recorded in the Danube Delta, representing 98% of the European total, many of them endemic. More than 300 species of birds have been recorded in the Delta, of which over 176 species breed here. The most important species are the White pelican (80% of the European population), Dalmatian pelican (9% of the world breeding population), Pygmy cormorant (61% of the world population), Red-breasted goose (17% of the world population), Night heron, Squacco heron, Great egret, Little egret, Mute swan, White-tailed eagle, Osprey, Saker falcon, Red-footed falcon. The Danube Delta is also very important for fish, with 125 species present, including threatened sturgeons. Otter, stoat, and European mink, as well as wildcat are found on the floating islands. Although few studies have been carried out on Delta mammals since 1970, largely as a result of lack of funding, the mink population is apparently significant in European terms. The Danube Delta uniqueness and ecological importance were internationally recognized. It was designated a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance in 1991, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1991 and internationally recognised as a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1992. The Biosphere Reserve lies on the coast of the Black Sea, in the Eastern part of Romania – in Tulcea County. It encompasses the area between the river branches Chilia, Sulina and Sfantu Gheorghe. The site also includes the largest complex of lakes in Europe, which includes Lakes Razelm, Sinoe, Zmeica and Golovita to the immediate south of the Delta. The overall basic hydrological and ecological systems of the Delta, although strongly degraded, are considered intact. The Rosca-Buhaiova core area is considered almost unaltered by man due to the shallow water level making access almost impossible. The Zatoane-Sacalin core area (the largest in the Delta) is a mosaic of lakes, ponds and reedbeds with parallel strips of sand dunes. PEOPLE AND OCCUPATIONS The population of the Danube Delta is estimated at 12,000. People live along the three main waterways: Chilia, Sulina and Sfantu Gheorghe, which are the main source of drinking water. The population is aging; the younger generation is leaving the Delta and some old fishing villages of reed huts have been replaced by concrete structures, although individual fishing huts remain. Some villages (e.g. Gorgova) have no electricity. The local population has been involved in small-scale, low-intensity use of natural resources supplemented by outside interests, such as fishing, cattle grazing and beekeeping. The people generally are fluent in both Romanian and Russian. Around 40,000 people are ethnic Russians. Some settled in the delta due to religious reasons (they did not agree with the reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church) or they were forced to move to the Danube Delta as part of the colonisation policy of the Russian Empire. Social problems are worsened by low incomes due to set prices for fish. Conditions for workers on state farms (on the newly-created polders), which lack basic infrastructure, are reported to be extremely bad, and the work is unpopular. After 1960, the traditional occupations of fishing and agriculture were drastically modified by extending reed exploitation (later abandoned), fishponds and large agricultural and forestry polders. Tourism is another important economic activity in the Danube Delta. Most tourism is focused in the areas on the Black Sea Coast. This sector is booming in the region in terms of infrastructure development and investments. The Danube Delta attracts more and more tourists each year, ever since a few professional tourism initiatives were developed a few years ago.  THREATS While nature has done its part of the deal and is "responsible" for the uniqueness and biological diversity of the Danube Delta, man also intervened and tried to adjust nature for his needs. Major threats to the delta eco-system come from the changes both in the upstream conditions (retained sediments, increased pollution), as well as from the changes in the delta itself. During the communist period, almost one third of the Danube Delta was altered by human intervention. After 1960, significant infrastructure works were carried out, which aimed to transform the wetlands into agriculture polders or fishponds. After 1960, the former Romanian Communist president, Nicolae Ceausescu, ordered major changes to the Danube Delta, following his unrealistic dream of transforming the area into an agricultural El Dorado. By 1990, a fourth (974 km2) of the Danube Delta was embanked, including 400 km2 for agricultural purposes. In the Razim-Sinoe system coastal area, 23,500 ha have been embanked. The separation of the main river from the backwaters results in a loss of habitats, which affects the aquatic fauna and flora. Predictably, the land that resulted after the loss of wetlands and deforestation could not be used for agriculture or fish farming. The effects of the human intervention resulted in important loss of the biological diversity of the Danube Delta and an unbalanced ecosystem. Large areas of wetlands have been transformed in intensively used fish farms. The pressure to increase fish production has led to the introduction of exotic species with a faster growth, which escaped from the fish farms and started to breed in the natural lakes. Due also to industrial fishing, the fish catch has decreased to about a third of previous catches. Industrial fishing has also had a dramatic impact on certain species, such as the sturgeon, which are currently threatened with extinction. Moreover, the destruction of natural floodplains and deforestation has increased the speed and effect of floods. These effects were dramatically felt during the 2006 massive floods. The floodplains did not have enough space to accommodate the huge water volume. As a result, infrastructure and crops suffered significant damage. Besides the works which aimed to change initial land use, infrastructure works for improving navigation have also imperiled the fragile ecological balance of the delta. Canalization, dredging, construction of dams modified the deltaic landscape, with important impacts on the natural habitats. The natural channel networks have been modified during the last century (doubling the length of the channels from 1910 to 1990, up to a total of 3400 km). Artificial watercourses created by dredging amounts to 1753 km. New channels created for transport purposes, like the Caraorman Channel and the Mila 35 Channel, have changed the ecological balance. Water is hindered by construction, areas are dried out, and sedimentation has increased. The Tulcea-Sulina branch (81 km.) is completely canalized with all former meanders and side channels being cut off, and its length reduced from 85 to 62 km. The 80-m wide navigation route has to be permanently dredged to secure a depth of 7.3 m. The southern Sfantu Gheorghe branch (109 km) is not used by sea ships, but has also been affected by meander cut-offs since the '60s (loss of approx. 50 km). Nowadays, the construction of the Bystroye canal through the heart of the Ukrainian Danube Delta has raised international protests. The Ukrainian government strongly support and promote the Bystroye canal as a solution for boosting the shipping industry. This is seen as a viable solution to harsh unemployment issues in closed Delta ports. Although the economic benefits are questionable, the effects of the works on one of the most ecologically valuable parts of the Delta are beyond any doubt. To name a few of the negative ecological consequences: · Damage to the habitat, spawning condition and feeding base of the majority of the fish species dwelling in this area (including the Danube herring); · Impact on sturgeon population (hydro-morphological alterations are known as the main threat to migratory sturgeons); · Effect on nesting and breeding conditions of bird species; · Negative changes in plant communities (including expansion of invasive species and eutrophication); · Increased noise pollution in 5 km zone around canal, and negative influences on the fauna of the reserve;· Effect on the hydrological balance of the delta; · Increased probability of oil product pollution of the estuary. Besides the nature conservation perspective, the construction of the Bystroye canal also infringes on international laws and treaties, of which Ukraine is a signatory: The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance; Espo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context; Convention on Cooperation for the Protection and Sustainable Use of the Danube River; The Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals; The African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA); The Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters; The Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats; Bucharest Convention on the Protection of the Black Sea against Pollution (2003 Protocol on the conservation of biodiversity and landscapes); The Joint Declaration on the creation of the Lower Danube Green Corridor including a network of protected, proposed protected, and restoration area signed by the countries of the Lower Danube: Romania, Bulgaria, Moldavia and Ukraine on 5th June 2000. Another important threat to the Danube Delta is unsustainable tourism – paradoxically, as the delta is marketed as a not-to-be-missed destination of a Romanian vacation. Constructions made of concrete, not in line with the traditional architecture and building materials (such as reed, for example), pollution, springing up alongside small channels and protected areas with high-speed boats are only a few elements of "unsustainable tourism". The effects on the natural habitat are all too foreseeable. SOLUTIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES The above overview on some of the threats menacing the Danube Delta may shape a somber image of almost-everything-is-lost and nothing-can-be-done-anymore. What are the solutions that could conserve and restore the biological diversity of the Danube Delta and bring prosperity to its inhabitants? WWF, the global conservation organization, has identified and has been implementing such solutions for more than 15 years, through its Danube-Carpathian Programme. The most important initiative that will help the delta retain its status is the Lower Danube Green Corridor, started by the Romanian, Ukrainian, Moldovan and Bulgarian environmental ministries, and supported by WWF. This is the largest cross-border wetland restoration and protection initiative in Europe, affecting the whole of the Lower Danube floodplains, and local people and ecosystems on the Danube River and Black Sea. A pilot project in the Romanian part of the Danube Delta, on the islands of Babina and Cernovca, has demonstrated the restoration potential of the damaged wetlands, returning floodplains unsuccessfully drained for agriculture back to their natural states. As a result, local communities have benefited from increased fish stocks and livelihood. By focusing on sustainability and having long term perspectives, restoration projects contribute not only to saving the biodiversity and ecological values of the Danube Delta, they also aim to safeguard the cultural heritage and a unique and rare lifestyle in Europe. Also important are local products and traditional practices, including fishing, vegetable and fruit production, use of traditional materials in construction. Eco-tourism can be an important tool for revitalizing the region. The exceptional landscapes attract more and more visitors in the Danube Delta each year. A prerequisite for sustainable and efficient tourism is the conservation and preservation of the ecological and biological diversity. The local community should be involved in conservation activities, in order to maintain and restore the unique environment that attracts nature lovers, hence bringing local prosperity. Accommodation facilities should be built respecting the local architecture and the specificity of the deltaic landscape. Traditional materials should be used for construction and local products for preparing the food for the guests. Facilities and leisure activities provided to tourists must also respect nature. High speed boats that can currently be seen almost everywhere, even in small channels and noisy ATVs could be replaced with traditional / fishing boat trips and pedestrian tours. Cooperation of local and central authorities is essential, starting with the drafting of necessary legislation for nature conservation and with actually enforcing this legislation in the field. Dialogue with stakeholders is an important tool, which may prevent or redesign development projects that may be affecting the Delta. For example, in 2006, WWF facilitated the first Integrated Action Plan for Sturgeon Conservation in the Danube Basin, which was adopted by the Council of Europe. A direct effect was the ban of sturgeon fishing in Romania for a period of 10 years, as an attempt to save this species. The projects for improving navigation on the Danube have also a significant impact on the rivers and delta ecosystems. WWF is actively involved in a dialogue with relevant stakeholders, from the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, to transport companies. The alternative suggested for current navigation projects is innovative technical solutions which should adapt the ships to the river and not vice versa. In the Danube Delta, the past, the present and the future are entirely man-made. It's that simple: it fully depends on us to preserve and enjoy this diverse and beautiful place, both in terms of nature, culture and population. After all, it seems that clichés do work when referring to the Danube Delta!

by Dana Carataş; Orieta Hulea